Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The man who saved Boston Ballet: A conversation with Mikko Nissinen (Part I)

Mikko Nissinen

Mikko Nissinen assumed the artistic directorship of the Boston Ballet in 2001, when he was only 39. At that time the organization was in seeming disarray - compromised artistically and distressed financially.  And it has endured crises since -  it even lost its performance home, the Wang Center, amid the budgetary shocks of the Great Recession.

But today, on the verge of its 50th birthday, there's much to celebrate - in fact the Ballet seems stronger than it has ever been. It has a new home at the Opera House; a hot house choreographer; a repertory that spans the classics to the cutting edge (including a re-imagined Nutcracker); and what's more, a supportive, steadily growing audience, and a company of dancers that more than holds it own on the international scene.  

At the center of this success story is Nissinen himself - a slightly diffident presence in public who has slowly and quietly built a new artistic powerhouse in the city.  The Hub Review sat down with him two weeks ago, as he was preparing the launch of the Ballet's summer tour to London, to find out a little more about what makes Mikko tick - and what makes the Ballet tick, too.

HR: So - London!  That's exciting - or is it just another tour for you?

Mikko: We have toured quite a bit. We've been to Spain - twice - and Korea, Canada, the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina, Ballet Across America two times . . . the New York Citi Center festival twice . . . let's see, I'm sure I'm forgetting something - oh of course Helsinki!

HR: That's right, your homecoming, last year! But London - my personal feeling is that London is the most sophisticated arts capital in the world.  Far more sophisticated than New York. Not perhaps among the chattering classes, but among the rank in file . . . I mean I've been shocked by the conversations in the stalls in London. Little ladies in sweaters stand about ranking this appearance by the Bolshoi against that previous appearance several years ago, and I'm just sitting there going, Wow . . . I've never heard anything like this in America, never ever!

Mikko: It's a global dance hub, definitely. All the major companies - Mariinsky, Paris Opera, the Bolshoi Ballet, New York City Ballet - they all want to make it in London.

HR: Because if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere . . .

Mikko:  Exactly.  (Laughter.)

HR: Or is that song about someplace else?  (More laughter.)

Mikko:  Well, New York is a slightly different beast, but just the same in that respect! And of course we're going there too.  Next summer.  We're book-ending the anniversary with these two tours.

HR:  Your fiftieth  - congratulations, btw! So - would you say this tour is a kind of statement?  Boston Ballet is all grown up now; you're 50 years of age; it's time to declare yourself.  So what was going through your mind when you thought through the two London programs?

The Ballet in Jiří Kylián's Bella Figura, which they brought to London. Photo: Gene Schiavone.

Mikko.  Well, the key thing is that they don't know us in London. The Ballet visited once before, thirty years ago, but then we were almost perceived as the back-drop for Nureyev, who was the star, and we haven't been back . . . so I would call this whole tour "Getting to Know You."  This is our introduction, our calling card. It's almost a first impression! So I wanted to be very true to who we are. But I also felt that London didn't really need another full-length story ballet, so I wanted to communicate how we're different; I wanted to convey our special versatility and artistic sensitivity.  If you look at the range from Nijinsky's Afternoon of a Faun to William Forsythe's The Second Detail . . . that spans not only a century, but a whole spectrum, from very quiet, sensual nuance to pounding aggression. And of course I wanted to make sure that every piece of choreography we brought would be a great piece of choreography.  (In the end the programs included Nijinsky's Faun, Balanchine's Serenade and Symphony in Three Movements, Kylián's Bella Figura (above), Jorma Elo's Plan to B, Christopher Wheeldon's Polyphonia, and Forsythe's The Second Detail (below).)

HR: You do have a whole range of achievement to pick from. Grand story ballets, a specialty in Balanchine, and now a leading position on the cutting edge of choreography - but what ties all those things together?  You want London to get to know you, to understand "who you are" - well, who are you?

Mikko: Well. . . (Laughter.)

HR: Let's put it this way - after seeing both your programs, what do you think a London dance fan would walk away thinking about Boston Ballet?  And how close would you say their impression was to the model company you hoped to build?

Mikko:  What I hoped to build was a company that performed at a very high international level!

HR: So okay - check! (Laughter.)

The Second Detail in London.  Photo: Tristram Kenton, The Guardian
Mikko:  I mean we are - even I am - surprised at just how versatile the company is. They can do classical ballet, they can do the whole range of modern, they can do Balanchine, they can do contemporary - and they can do it as a contemporary company would do it, not as a classical ballet company would; all this is very important, very surprising. Sometimes we're even talking about the same dancers, single artists who can excel in a nineteenth-century story ballet, and then a Balanchine classic, and then something brand-new. That is a big thing.

HR: The technical, stylistic achievement.

Mikko: Right. But what I'm also trying to create with the programming, and the manner in which we perform it, is . . . well, an engagement with the audience. That they're equal participants, that they're not being just "danced at." I don't want to hear them say, "What a lovely job!" I want their personal involvement, I'm hoping to stimulate an inner dialogue after the performance - so in a way we're all participants in that process.  I hope that is what they walk away saying about us in London.

The London tour (the company is already back!) was widely regarded as a success. The Evening Standard enthused "They really should come back more often," while the Guardian praised the Ballet as "a company of engagingly individual performers." Our conversation with Mikko Nissinen will continue in the second of this three-part series.

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